Preserving History and Culture While Evolving to Meet New Needs: A Conversation With Chumper Walker

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 A man presents a certificate to two women.Chumper Walker serves as the County Extension Director for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Cooperative Extension Office in Cherokee, NC, located on the Qualla Boundary. Chumper’s main focus area is Community Development while also serving Ag, Hort, and turf management. One of Chumper’s favorite events is the Annual Cherokee Indian Fair. This year, the 110th Cherokee Indian Fair was held after two years of cancellations due to the pandemic. Seeing youth participate in the fair is one of the biggest joys in Chumper’s work! He loves getting to interact with the community and judge the livestock portion where youth share about raising and caring for their animals.

Chumper’s Local Food Landscape

“Community is an important part of Cherokee culture, from ancient times until now, and food has always been a way to bring the community together. Many tribal social activities and interactions [such as the Cherokee Indian Fair] are centered around sharing meals and spending time together still today,” (Visit Cherokee NC). During Chumper’s time as CED, he observed an informal local food system focusing on home and community production and consumption. In addition, the local community often relied on donations through the Tribal Foods Distribution Program. According to the 2018 Tribal Health Assessment, food insecurity was among the top 10 health priorities identified for the EBCI area generally due to the rural location. There is only one grocery store on the boundary and food access grew even more difficult during the pandemic. One of Chumper’s goals is to support a vibrant local food scene and encourage the desire for local food, the creation of food businesses, and increase the local food demand.
"Our community needs are similar to other rural communities, but include many cultural, environmental, and social factors as well as an important history. We (Cherokee People) have been here for more than 10,000 years [as the] original farmers and stewards of our environment. We want to preserve as much history and culture as possible, yet also evolve to meet the needs of our people." - Chumper Walker

Chumper’s Primary Projects & Programs

Our most popular programs and events focus around seed distribution, poultry projects, and food preservation,” Chumper shared. The EBCI office hosts a heritage seed giveaway each year where over 800 families receive over 10,000 individual packets of seed. “The idea is to encourage self-reliance, gardening skills and cultural connection in tribal members while providing them a way to feed their families healthy, fresh food,” (Smoky Mountain News – Seed Distribution).
Two men stand on a porch.
Another program in Chumper’s office includes a Youth Backyard Poultry Project which provides 4-H youth and their families chicks to raise for eggs and meat production. This project allows youth to get involved in learning where their food comes from and the responsibility of growing and raising your food. The EBCI community offers access to a cannery for community members to take produce or meat and have it preserved for a small fee. All of these projects allow the EBCI and community members to be invested in their food system and local foods. 

Outside of these projects that are geared towards community members, Chumper has also had a goal of reaching producers in the EBCI. Thus came about monthly Tribal Producer Meetings which were used to gain more understanding of the goals of producers, their operation, and the community. Again they saw that there wasn’t enough local demand to invest in expanding businesses. “It was almost perfect timing that the Empowering Mountain Food Systems Project (EMFS) came to our office and region,” Chumper said. This three-year project funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission in partnership with CEFS, NCCE, the EBCI, and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation is focused on bringing expanded opportunities and capacity to food and farm business across seven counties in Western NC and is based at the EBCI Cooperative Extension Office. “Laura Lauffer is the director of the project and has been an amazing champion for food systems in our area,” (Chumper Walker). Thanks to EMFS’ assistance, the EBCI has been able to focus on supporting emerging food businesses through various training including food safety, supply chain meetings, and many others. They also recently held a Food Truck Boot Camp – a four-day long training consisting of over 14 work sessions from safety to menu design.

Two people discuss information written on large paper.When asked if any of the programs mentioned are unique to the EBCI center, Chumper responded that it is not the programs that are unique but rather the client that is served. “Our community needs are similar to other rural communities, but include many cultural, environmental, and social factors as well as an important history. We (Cherokee People) have been here for more than 10,000 years [as the] original farmers and stewards of our environment. We want to preserve as much history and culture as possible, yet also evolve to meet the needs of our people.” 

Chumper’s Final Thoughts

When asked what the future of local foods in North Carolina will look like, Chumper shared that in regards to “sourcing and serving foods grown locally, our main goal should be to create a local demand and have local production”. And in regards to “traditional foods specific to a particular region, we may need to focus on food preparation and cooking since we have seen that many younger generations don’t know how to prepare those foods.” 

Chumper’s Favorite Place to Buy Local and Favorite Recipes Using Local Food

Food is definitely a highlight of the Cherokee Indian Fair. Many local families host food booths to share their home cooked foods with the community. Chumper said this is his, and many others, favorite food week! He said he doesn’t necessarily have a favorite recipe but rather a few different ones where the main ingredient is whatever wild harvested fresh greens are available. From wild leeks (ramps) to socan (green coneflower) to branch lettuce, something delicious is always in season!